ASCII by Jason Scott

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Sudden View —

It’s kind of rare that I’m contacted by people simply because they assume I love text and the manipulation of it. That is, it’s one thing to go “here’s some old computer stuff, you would like it” and another for someone to go “as someone who can appreciate the creation and manipulation of text, you should be aware of this”.

This happened recently when Rod Coleman wrote to tell me about Sudden View, a (windows-based) text editor he’s been working on for about a decade and a half. But beyond just letting me know about it, he told me where to download it, and try it out. It’s really cool. And the reason it’s cool to me may or may not be, in itself, cool with you.

What Rod has done is sat down and tried to figure out alternative ways to interface with text. This is both easier and harder than it sounds.

A lot of times in the world, “good enough” is good enough. If it does what it says, especially if it’s incrementally better than what things are now, then people are pretty happy and that’s that. Radical leaps forward, while breathtaking, are usually ignored as “weird” or “hard to use” when in fact it’s more a case of “not like I saw before”.

This is why, for example, almost every computer has a thing that lets you save your current program’s data in the upper left corner of the screen. It’s better than what was there before, and yet there are likely potentially better ideas, that aren’t in wide use. I’m not saying that the file-saving-in-the-corner thing is wrong, just that it’s the way things are done and will, for lack of a new idea that’s widely accepted, be the way things are done for the future.

Similarly, a lot of text editors are just like each other so there’s a very quick ramp-up period, except the “new” text editor will add a few additional ways of saving out the text, or include mail merging, or make you coffee, or whatever.

Sudden View doesn’t do any of that, and that’s why I think it’s worth trying out. It represents one man’s journey to understand what about the process of editing text takes the most amount of our time, and what shortcuts we take in writing that come from frustration with a machine as opposed to what the best possible phrasing should be, and so on.

It is interesting to me how user interfaces influence final work. Once you see it in action, you start to re-think your relationship to machines. At Phreaknic this year, there was a short film shown on Saturday night with drunken antics of attendees captured on video. While watching it, I was struck with an odd feeling: it felt kind of like my documentary. Not in content, not in choice of angles, not in the flow of editing…. it was just this sense that it had come out of the same “factory” that my film had. Something about the way the shots switched to each other, the titles, the fades and fade-outs… it was like I’d made it, but completely different than I would have made it. This description sounds weird because the feeling was weird.

Well, it turned out they’d used the same video editing software I’d used. They hadn’t even used the same camera… it was the way that Vegas Video happened to interface with the user, to provide them with clips and transitions between those clips and timing, that made our films seem the same. It was very disconcerting; I thought I’d made something unique and myself, and I’d likely made a different model of a building out of the same popsicle sticks. Anyone who looked at them side by side would see similarities.

Once I saw that, a thousand ideas went off in my brain on how to do things better next time. By seeing where I was the same, I was, myself, improved.

Similarly, we write and compose and draw and e-mail people using programs that work similarly to each other. If you are always presented with the receptacle for your thoughts as a blank screen with a blinking cursor, and that cursor does the wrapping of words for you, and you have a mouse that selects text a certain way, and it’s this many clicks or keypresses to do this action… it starts to affect you. It’s subtle, but it’s there.

So it does good to take a trip in different shoes.

Am I saying that we should throw out all our current editors, and go with Sudden View, simply because the interface is different? I’m not saying that either.

But it’s rare to pull in a program that does something you do all the time, yet interfaces with it differently. The closest to this situation people usually get is with video games, which often have wild new interactivity… but not really. Point, shoot, load up, check your score… actually, it tends to be predictable more often than not.

The smartest thing Rod has done is make it so the beta test comes with a text file that contains an entire tutorial on trying out the editor. You walk through it, and you just start learning it. So here’s what I suggest.

Try it out. Download the thing and run it if you can. And focus on what it’s doing to your brain. You’ll likely feel the edges and firm walls in your mind you didn’t know were there, bumping against expectations and three-steps-ahead plans that your head was making. See if you can work this way, in this different language of interaction. A new user interface can show you what you might be falling into habit with regarding your silly little computer and how you deal with it.

And some people, might realize that this is how they want to edit text in the future, or demand features like this from future text editors.

It’s refreshing, like a walk in the park after you’ve been in a basement for too long.

And hey, it’s text. And Rod was right in that regard: I really do love text.


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6 Comments

  1. Jon-o says:

    Looks like a neat program… Too bad it’s only in windows!

    I wonder if there might be any screenshots or something so I can get an idea of what it’s doing?

  2. Krisjohn says:

    Hmm, seems to have some major display problems for me. Resizing the window pretty much breaks it.

  3. Mungojelly says:

    Wow. I’ve fantasized about many of those features before. (Glad to hear there are people less lazy than I am!) And it’s so refreshing to see something with a DIFFERENT INTERFACE. I totally feel like we’re stuck at a local maxima with this windows-icons-menus world, and if we could just jiggle it around a little we could find some much more satisfying way to interact with our computers. Here’s someone who’s gone out on a limb to explore a different branch, to mix metaphors. Thanks for the pointer! <3

  4. Rick Almeida says:

    Hey, maybe it’s just me, but http://www.sudden.net brings up a “Sierra Computers Ltd.” Am I missing something?

  5. Jason Scott says:

    You’re right. The site seems to have shifted/gone down. Don’t know why. I hope it wasn’t undue attention or some such (not that I drive THAT much traffic anywhere). I’ve noted on the entry that it’s not there.

  6. Rod Coleman says:

    Jason,

    First, an apology…

    I’ve been gone a few days and I come back to find a spike in the page views followed by a drop to zero. Yep, my hosting company (who I also work for) made major changes over the weekend but forgot about restoring my website. There’s more to do yet, but it should be working again. Thank you for your patience.

    And thank you Jason for such a lucid explanation for the “why” of Sudden View. This is one of the most impressive posts I’ve seen on the topic. I often spend half my time explaining why Sudden View is NOT like other programs. But you nailed it. I plan to quote you if you don’t mind.

    Jon-o,

    > Looks like a neat program… Too bad it’s only
    > in windows!

    I prefer Mac but the last port was Atari so I went for volume this time. It’s not that I LIKE Bill dog food.

    > I wonder if there might be any screenshots

    Not yet. And they would mean much without animation or the feel. If you download and read “Text1.ROM”, it’ll give you some idea of what’s going on.

    Krisjohn,

    > Resizing the window pretty much breaks it.

    Break like in locked up? I’d like to know about that one.

    Other than that, the text windows are sized independently of the main window (for a reason). Try left clicking the “Windows Menu / Tile 2 + 1″ or “Maximize All Windows”. That should help. BTW, there’s other MUCH stranger stuff that might make you think things are “broken”.

    Rick,

    > Wow. I’ve fantasized about many of those
    > features before.

    Cool. Let me know what you think.

    > Hey, maybe it’s just me, but http://www.sudden.net
    > brings up a “Sierra Computers Ltd.”

    That’s my host but it should be back on line.

    Again, thank you for the patience.

    Bug reports and feedback are welcome. I’ve already fixed several problems and am working on several more. I hope to have another release in early January.

    Let me know what you think.

    Rod